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HOLIDAY HOT LIST

EARLY BIRD: The Mercantile

The Hollywood hipster haven, with chef Kris Morningstar in the kitchen, offers small plates plus wines to sample.

November 23, 2009|By S. IRENE VIRBILA | Restaurant Critic
  • Chef Kris Morningstar chats with a customer at the Mercantile, a new wine bar and restaurant, off Sunset Boulevard.
Chef Kris Morningstar chats with a customer at the Mercantile, a new wine… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

New York entrepreneur George Abou-Daoud has a spanking new place for Hollywood hipsters to hang. That would be the gourmet market and wine bar called the Mercantile just a few blocks west of his popular Bowery and Delancey venues. And this time, he's nabbed a name chef to do the food -- Kris Morningstar, who comes fully credentialled from stints at A.O.C. and Blue Velvet, not counting a short tenure at Casa downtown as opening chef. Morningstar will be handling both the Mercantile and the restaurant District next door (slated to open soon).

With its high ceilings and flower-sprigged wallpaper, a bar at the front and a counter at the back showing off cheeses, charcuterie and pastries, the Mercantile evokes an old-timey general store. That is, until you take in the tall, weirdly uncomfortable bentwood stools and start wondering whether the wooden barrels riding at ceiling height above the bar are securely fastened. By the time a fetching newcomer opens her laptop and lights up her heavily tattooed arm, I'm thinking Hollywood. Screenwriter. Romance novelist soaking up some local color?

Two gentlemen from citysipper.com, described on their business cards as "uncorking your local wine community," are polite enough to slide over to accommodate my party. The city sippers are sharing a massive chicken pot pie capped with a golden brown crust, the night's special, which could easily serve three or even four. And so we have to order that too, along with some of the small plates. Smoked trout rillettes arrive piled high on a baguette, something like an haute tuna sandwich. Our knives won't cut it, so how are you supposed to share? Our waiter solves it by taking it back to the kitchen to be divided.

The menu features cheese fondue for two or three, but we opt instead for raclette, boiled potatoes, cornichons and pink pickled pearl onions under a blanket of melted cheese, just the thing on a night that carries a chill. Crispy morcilla sausage with sauteed wood ear mushrooms, a quail egg and a splash of sherry vinegar is fine too but an awfully small portion for $11. The kitchen still seems to be working out portion sizes. Adding a few more endive leaves to the endive and goat cheese salad wouldn't break the bank, either.

But the French onion soup is just about perfect. Served in a stubby white porcelain bowl, it's rich and not a bit greasy, laced with lots of slow-caramelized onions with, of course, a tasty Gruyère crouton on top.

For late-night munchies, there's beef tartare made with bacon drippings, a Cuban sandwich and a croque-madame, basically the same thing as a croque-monsieur, only madame is crowned with an egg sunny side up. Ta dum!

Order wines either by perusing the bottles on the shelves or get hold of the list attached to a clipboard. Behind the bar is a selection of 50 wines by the glass to try, i.e. plenty for curious sippers.

For those who don't relish balancing on the high stools lined up along the counters across from the bar, there's a small mezzanine dining room upstairs where it's quieter.

It's too new for me to really envision what the place will be when the kitchen and crew are up to speed, but the Mercantile has a comfortable, down-home vibe that's a great antidote to the glitz at Social Hollywood across the street. And with the Cat & Fiddle and Abou-Douad's other places due east, its location means it's easy to do some serious bar hopping.

Hollywood owns the night.

irene.virbila@latimes.com

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